For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.
“Transsexualism has taken only twenty-five years to become a household word,” reads the opening line of the 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. The author, Janice Raymond, a renowned academic and feminist campaigner, caused a massive kerfuffle when she published the work, which seriously tackled the theory and consequences of diagnosing the feelings of body dysphoria and the unbearable desire to live and present as the opposite sex.
Raymond wrote TTE as a response to the rising rates of sex-change surgery in the US. She had long been concerned about the medical practices that negatively impacted women, such as unnecessary hysterectomies and caesareans. This led her to question the medical consequences of the bodily mutilation inherent in transsexual surgery, and the detrimental effects of taking lifelong hormones.
She predicted that the handful of gender identity clinics treating adult transsexuals – the first of which opened in 1967 – would become what she calls ‘sex role control centers’ for so-called deviant female and male children. “Such gender identity centers are already being used for the treatment of designated child transsexuals,” she wrote, before arguing that these centres would proliferate.
There are now at least 40 such clinics treating children’s ‘gender dysphoria’ in the United States, and in England there are seven treating adults, and only one at present that specialises in under 18s, but with calls for more. This is in spite of concerns about the effects that such treatment might have on individuals legally considered too young to make most major life decisions.
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Small wonder, then, that 40 years after it was first published, TTE is perceived as an important foundation stone in gender critical feminist thinking.
In 1979, the word gender was understood to be separate from the word sex. Sex was what defined a person biologically; gender was understood to mean the sex-appropriate behaviour that was socially constructed. Today, gender has replaced the word sex in common parlance, as if gender itself were biological.
Raymond foresaw this shift. “As I saw it then and see it now, transsexualism goes to the question of what gender is, how to challenge it, and what reinforces gender stereotyping in a role-defined society,” wrote Raymond in her preface to the 1994 reprint of TTE. When I interviewed her recently for this article, she added that “only feminism can challenge the idea of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain and notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ being innate”.
And only feminism can defend the rights of those born into the bodies of women – though it sometimes feels as though we’re not allowed to call ourselves ‘women’ anymore. Instead we’re uterus-owners, egg producers, chest feeders and even non-men. Abortion providers now often use the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’ so as not to exclude trans men.
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One of Raymond’s transsexual interviewees, quoted in TTE, proclaimed: “Genetic women are becoming quite obsolete, which is obvious, and the future belongs to transsexual women. All you have left is your ability to bear children, and in a world which will groan to feed 6 billion by the year 2000, that’s a negative asset.”
Today, trans women are asking for womb transplants and the ability to breast feed. By demanding the ‘right’ to give birth, they are rendering natal women obsolete.
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Forty years ago Raymond wrote, “Masculine behaviour is notably obtrusive”. She was referring to the level of notoriety achieved by the trans woman Renee Richards “in the wake of the Tennis Week Open”. Richards fought to compete on a level playing field with natal women. The New York Times review of TTE read: “The transsexual propagandists claim to transform ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’ into ‘real’ women and want them to be accepted socially as females (say, in professional tennis).”
Not only was The Transsexual Empire prescient – so too was the response to the book. Raymond experienced the kind of backlash that is endured by anyone who questions trans women’s rights today. Martina Navratilova was hounded on Twitter after she wrote a piece examining transgender participation in women’s sport; upon the publication of TTE, the transsexual lobby accused Raymond of bigotry and said the book constituted ‘hate speech’. Navratilova was thrown out of an advocacy group for LGBTQ sportspeople, which accused her of ‘transphobia’; Raymond was turned down for grants, reported to her university and publicly harassed and threatened with violence on a regular basis.
With the advent of the internet, a cesspool of vitriol aimed at anyone who dissents from transgender orthodoxies has gone viral. Since I first wrote about the issue I have come in for the same treatment as Raymond, as have scores of other women.
And the bullying doesn’t stop there. Today, many lesbians who will not date trans woman say they feel under pressure to do so or risk being labelled transphobic. In recent years, the term ‘cotton ceiling’ is used by some trans-activists to describe the difficulties faced by male-bodied trans women in persuading lesbians to have sex with them. Recently published research on the ‘cotton ceiling’ phenomenon found that significant numbers of lesbians have encountered bullying and sexual harassment by ‘trans lesbians’. Reading the chapter, “Sappho By Surgery”, it’s hard not to think she must have a time machine: she writes that men who asserted they were women would also claim to be ‘trans lesbians’ and expect access to natal women’s bodies.
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“It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist,” wrote Raymond, “often he is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he is a transsexual and he just does not happen to mention it.”
Four decades ago, Raymond saw how in a society obsessed with gender rules which determine how women and men should behave, that it would become easier and more acceptable to change bodies rather than behaviour. Did she also foresee how aggressive and demanding trans activists would eventually become, where ‘mis-gendering’ a trans person can be treated as a ‘hate crime’ and reported to police?
“Yes” she tells me. “I always suspected that transsexualism would change women’s lives in a way that would attempt to define us out of existence.”